When I first started to develop my passion for wine it was the books of English writer Oz Clarke which guided my tastes and my visits to the wine regions of France. I recall an evocative piece he wrote about sitting in the Nécropole, the military cemetery, of Sigolsheim in the Haut-Rhin department of Alsace. The view from this hill over the vineyards showed him how the Grand Cru sites corresponded to their position on the slopes. I visited the cemetery (of men who died in the Colmar pocket battle in World War 2) again last week and Clarke’s words came clearly to mind.
During my 5 days in Alsace I was to taste wines from all over the region, from its vineyards on the plains and the Grand Cru sites. For some years I was unconvinced by the true premium of those sites but my recent experience suggested to me that vignerons are now truly extracting the best from these vineyards and that there is a real jump in quality. I am sure that is not true of all of them but certainly the wines I tasted supported Clarke’s opinion back in the 1990s.
One other main development from previous experiences in Alsace was how much drier the wines are being made. There was always a sweetness to many wines but producers seem to have realised that consumers were confused by the different levels of dry, medium and sweetness in bottles which appeared to be of similar wine. It was noticeable that some wine lists even listed some wines such as Gewurztraminer as ‘sucré’ (sweeter). I found this a welcome consistency.
Finally the other main development for me was the improvement in wines from Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. The Blancs were often simply neutral, lacking real character and flavour. I tasted a number last week which showed real white fruit flavours and a floral, attractive aroma. Similarly the green, thin Pinot Noirs I remember from a few years back are generally now replaced by red fruit, more body and very pleasurable drinking.
The region is arguably the most attractive in France and I do love it. Towns and villages full of colourful, beamed houses, storks nests and often overlooked by castles. The vineyards can be precipitous, alarming slopes falling down to the villages. Machines would find it impossible to operate on some of them, these slopes need careful manual attention.
Despite the many positives of Alsace wines it was disappointing to see so much use of herbicides, chemical sprays etc. I saw 3 spraying machines in use and every one operated by a vigneron dressed in plastic suits and masks to (rightly) protect them, these were clearly powerful chemicals being used.
Fortunately I was able to visit some of those who work in more environmentally friendly ways and I shall describe those visits next time.